Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Debate director looks back at the great UAA-Stanford Debate

The recent exhibition debate between UAA's own Seawolf Debate Program and Stanford Debate was successful beyond any of our expectations. If you were one of the estimated 300+ people in attendance, thanks so much for being part of this great event.  If you weren't able to make it to this one, what can I say?  You missed a good one!

The topic really seemed to strike a chord with the Anchorage audience.  With a controversial Proposition 5 on their minds, the audience was very in tune with the debaters' examples and arguments about the justice of hate crimes legislation.  Whether they came with preconceived notions about the rightness or wrongness of such laws, I lost count of the number of people who approached me after the debate to say that the debaters had really challenged their perspectives.  The "division of the house" that followed the debate demonstrated how controversial the topic was: the "ayes" were almost indistinguishable from the "nays" in both force and volume.

No surprise, given the pedigree of these debaters. Between them, they have over 12 World Championship appearances under their belts.  They had debated each other before and knew that there was precious little weakness in any of the speakers' approaches.  Whether the cool, analytic and precise style of Stanford's Michael Baer and Faris Mohiuddin or the more passionate polemic of UAA's Brett Frazer and Drew Cason, the audience found something to like in each team's style.  And they didn't merely sit passively by, as an opportunity for speeches from the floor gave the audience a chance to add their own voices to the debate.  The debate wrapped up with solid rhetorical efforts from Baer and Frazer, pointing out the potential and limitations of attempting to punish hatred in our society.  In the end, the real winners were all of those who thought more deeply and critically about the issues.

For a recap of the event, please spend a little time reading this blog. You'll find profiles of the speakers, Twitter and blog posts put up during the round and an archived video of the event. We hope you enjoy reliving the moment, and encourage you to keep your ears open for an upcoming announcement of another match between the Seawolves and one of the best debate teams in the country from a certain East-coast, Ivy-League school.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The latest from our Seawolf Debate Team

Nearly 160 teams from 60 colleges and universities converged on Willamette University in Salem, OR last weekend for the U.S. Universities Debating Championships.  Following competition in six preliminary rounds and four elimination rounds, students from UAA’s Seawolf Debate Program provided once again that they are among the best of the best in academic debating in the US.

The debates focused on a variety of topical issues, ranging from whether the Arab Spring has advanced the cause of human rights and freedom in the Middle East to whether incarceration in the prison system was appropriate for non-violent criminals.  In the end, two UAA teams qualified for the elimination rounds.  After the six preliminary rounds, Amy Parrent and Brett Frazer earned the 5th seed overall, while Matt Fox and Kelsey Waldorf advanced as the 16th seed.

Fox and Waldorf were taken out in the first elimination round when they were unable to convince judges that continuing sanctions on Iran has a meaningful impact on that nation’s effort to develop nuclear weapons.  Frazer and Parrent, on the other hand, advanced through the first two elimination rounds to find themselves facing teams from Vermont and Hobart and William Smith College in the Semifinal round.  Despite a strong showing and a split decision, the Senior Frazer and Junior Parrent had to content themselves with a finish in the top 5% of teams at the tournament.  Frazer also garnered honors as the second overall individual speaker out of a field of over 300 other students from around the US.

The Seawolves now wrap up their season by hosting the inaugural Middle School Public Debating Championships on April 28.  For more information, please contact Steve Johnson at 786-4391 or visit www.uaa.alaska.edu/seawolfdebate.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Honoring the teams that put UAA Debate 'on the map'

Steve Johnson
Post-debate reception remarks by Steve Johnson, Fireside Cafe:

In a time when some deride the pursuit of higher education as snobbery, I’m proud to be a snob.  I’m proud to work with students who are thrilled by the uncertainty of not knowing the right answer, but invigorated by its pursuit.  I’m proud of a university that sees the value of teaching students the skills of informed and participatory citizenry and I’m proud of our community that supports events like this where we can gather to discuss our collective future, and perhaps to imagine a better one.

I’m also proud tonight to dedicate a new trophy to honor those Seawolf Debaters who have put this program on the map.

The timing of this dedication couldn’t be better.  10 years ago this past weekend I was in China adopting my first daughter.  That was a significant trip for me, not only as an obvious personal milestone, but also because it was the first time, since I started debating, I had ever missed the national debating tournament.  We had a team that year that was very much like the team we’ve had here over the last few years—a group of hard-working and dedicated individuals that drove one another to be better than any one of them individually could have been. 

And I remember obsessively checking my email at the Holiday Inn in Hefei, Anhui province to get updates about the competition.  I watched from afar as our top team progressed through each single-elimination round, until they arrived at Semifinals and the emails stopped.  I waited and sent repeated (and increasingly demanding) requests for updates, but heard nothing.

Finally, after a few hours of radio silence, I received a two-word email: 'we won.'  It wasn’t until about an hour later when I was able to reach them by phone that I learned that they won not only the semifinal but the final round.  Ben Garcia and Chris Richter had brought home a national championship, something for which the entire team had worked and in which they all shared.

Though competition honors select individuals, it’s important to remember that those individuals achieved what they did because of the work of many others.  So tonight, I’d like to dedicate this trophy, which honors the UAA students who have qualified for the elimination rounds of the World Universities Debating Championships, to all the individuals—our current team members, our alumni, our donors and the greater UAA community—who have supported our efforts, sponsored our competition and cheered our successes.

The plaque on the trophy reads: 
The World Universities Debating Championship is the pinnacle of competition in international intercollegiate debating.  The best teams from the top universities around the world meet once a year to engage in a contest of discourse on the most pressing issues of the day.

These students from the University of Alaska Anchorage have distinguished themselves by advancing to the elimination rounds at the World Championships.  They have returned home with victory and honor.
I’d like to ask the students honored on this trophy to join me up here.  They’re not all here, but many of them are:
  • Tom Lassen and Chris Kolerok, Semifinalists at the 2007 Worlds in Vancouver, British Columbia
  • Amie Stanley and Akis Gialopsos, Octofinalists at the 2011 Worlds in Botswana
  • Brett Frazer and Amy Parrent, Octofinalists at the 2011 Worlds in Botswana
  • And Brett Frazer and Colin Haugher, Octofinalists at the 2012 Worlds in Manila.
Congratulations to them and to all the members—current and past—of the Seawolf Debate program.

Steve Johnson's remarks that opened the UAA Stanford Debate

Steve Johnson at the podium opening the debate.
In case they went by too fast, here is how program director Steve Johnson couched the debate, addressing the low nature of our current public discourse.

"In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, author and social critic Neil Postman writes
When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk.
"It may be now that we’re beyond risk and in crisis.  Our public discourse of late seems to treat participants as targets for slander and character attacks, our leader’s commitments as fleeting as a image on an Etch-a-Sketch and the rights of minorities as dependent upon the personal convictions of an even smaller minority.  I’ll be honest; I sometimes feel that teaching the skills of reasoned discourse is a bit like tending a candle in the dark. 

"But the enlightenment that debate can deliver is essential, and I have faith that with the bright light of reasoned argument, we can better see the best, most just and honest path.
"I’m pleased, therefore, on behalf of the Seawolf Debate Program, to welcome you to what I hope will be an illuminating debate on an important issue."

UAA Stanford Debate, Part 1 (Begins 12:30)

Video streaming by Ustream
Time code tips:
  • 12:30 Debaters arrive, Steve Johnson opens
  • 14:07 Motion: This house would abolish the imposition of additonal penalties for crimes deemed to be hate crimes.  Johnson offers background, introduces both teams.
  • 17:30 How tonight's debate will proceed

UAA Stanford Debate, Part 2

Time code tips:
  • .03 Brett Frazer, first proposition speaker, begins (8 min)
  • 3:50 stream lost 
  • 8:01 Recording resumes, first opposition speaker Faris Mojiuddin begins (8 min)
  • 17:32 Drew Cason, second proposition speaker begins (8 min)
  • 26:50 Michael Baer, second opposition speaker begns (8 min)
  • 36:22 Steve Johnson invites floor speeches (1 minute each)
  • 37:30 Floor speech one
  • 39:24 Second floor speech
  • 41:50 Third floor speech
  • 43:40 Fourth floor speech
  • 45:12 Fifth floor speech
  • 46:22 Sixth floor speech
  • 48:03 Seventh floor speech
  • 49:25 Eighth floor speech
  • 51:10 Michael Baer closes the opposition side of the debate (5 minutes)
  • 57:21 Brett Frazer closes the proposition side (5 minutes)
  • 1:04:38 In favor of prop ay
  • 1:04:54 In favor of opposition nay
  • 1:04: Steve calls it a "win for Stanford"
    Standing ovation from the crowd
  • 1:05:16 Steve Johnson: "Far more important than a win or lose, that this becomes a beginning point for further discussion."

Pre-debate interview with Seawolf Debater Brett Frazer

We got so fired up over the UAA Stanford Debate that we wanted to do short interviews with each of the four debaters -- Brett Frazer and Drew Cason from UAA, and Faris Mohiuddin and Michael Baer from Stanford.

So much for the best of intentions. Things were moving fast the day of the debate, and we only managed to track Frazer down. He had interesting things to say, which we share in this 20-minute podcast. Check the timecodes listed in the description to move to parts of the interview that most interest you.

Here's one quote we found intriguing:

“I have been forced to argue against my personal convictions. And one of the things that has done for me is make me realize there are reasonable people who will disagree with you. When someone disagrees with you, that’s not because they are less intelligent or categorically wrong; they value certain things more than you do. You can disagree with someone and still respect their intelligence and respect their position. You can tell that person that their view is a perfectly reasonable position, it’s tenable and I understand it, but I disagree with it for these reasons. That’s a more productive conversation than the perjorative platitudes that we toss around in the political arena today.”

Even more moving, in light of the caliber of all four debaters, is that Frazer tells his personal story of dropping out of college as a Freshman. His comeback will inspire anyone. 

ADN photographer Marc Lester's 'Focal Point' blog post on UAA-Stanford Debate

An animated Brett Frazer in his opening speech.
If you missed this posting on the Anchorage Daily News website, click here to see the photos and read Lester's description of how the evening unfolded.